Belle Vernon Area student's project prompts effort to place historical marker
By Joe Napsha
Published: Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
A Belle Vernon Area student's project on Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763 has prompted his teacher to apply for a state historical marker to commemorate a little-known massacre at a trading outpost near West Newton.
“My goal is to get this story out there because I feel it is a very important, yet largely overlooked bit of our history,” said Belle Vernon Area Middle School history teacher Ross Farmer.
Farmer said he plans to submit an application to the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program for a sign to recognize the May 28, 1763, Delaware Indian massacre of Col. William Clapham, one of his servants, two women and a child at their settlement at the confluence of Sewickley Creek and the Youghiogheny River.
“We have a lot of legwork to do for that. But, as a historian, I feel this story needs to get out there,” Farmer said.
The event is part of local history, but the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh does not have a reference book about it, a spokeswoman said. The massacre is not mentioned in the “History of the County of Westmoreland,” published in 1882 by George D. Albert. But John Wilson refers to it in the 1971 “History of Sewickley Township” as occurring at the “mouth of the Big Sewickley Creek.”
Details of the massacre are included in student Dylan Haney's project, “In the Shadow of the King: Pontiac Stands Against the Tide of the British Empire.”
The project focuses on Pontiac's Rebellion and the transformation of the Indians' sentiments toward Great Britain. A website he has developed uses a picture of the Robert Griffing painting, “In the Shadow of the King,” which depicts Indians climbing what is now Mt. Washington, with Fort Pitt in the background.
Griffing is a renowned painter of Eastern Woodland Indians who roamed Western Pennsylvania.
“Local history is really interesting to me,” and learning about the massacre along Sewickley Creek “was awesome,” said Haney, 13, an eighth-grader from Rostraver.
Belle Vernon history teacher David Divelbliss said Haney is going the “extra mile” in gathering information that will be used on the application.
“I've never seen a student apply for a historical marker,” said Farmer, who has taught history for 21 years.
The massacre at Clapham's settlement was a prelude to the siege of Fort Pitt, which began with Indians harassing the fort in late May 1763 and attacking it on June 22. The siege did not end until Col. Henry Bouquet arrived at the fort at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers on Aug. 10, after defeating Indians who had left the siege at Fort Pitt to confront the British near Bushy Run station on Aug. 5 and 6.
“(The massacre of Clapham) was the opening shot of Pontiac's Rebellion in Pennsylvania,” said David Miller, a former director of Bushy Run Battlefield in Penn Township and education director at Old Economy Village in Ambridge.
Clapham's settlement had been the site of a Native American village, and he had lived there a few years before Pontiac's Rebellion, Miller said.
The Delaware Indians had been in a confederacy with Pontiac, who attacked Fort Detroit in May 1763, Farmer said.
Clapham traded with the Indians from his settlement at the mouth of Sewickley Creek, about a mile north of West Newton, Farmer said.
“This (trading post) sent a signal to the Native Americans that (settlers) were here to stay,” and Pontiac's Rebellion was about pushing the settlers out of the region, Farmer said.
Farmer said he learned about the massacre at what was then Oswegly Old Town during Miller's presentation in November at a Braddock Road Preservation Society program in Jumonville, the site of George Washington's attack on French troops in May 1754.
“I immediately went to dig into that (Clapham massacre) further,” Farmer said. He made at least 14 trips to the Youghiogheny River site with his metal detector.
Farmer said he found two buckles and what appears to be part of a Spanish silver coin about 2 feet underground at the trading post site.
“This was worthwhile. This is proof that there was a historic settlement there,” Farmer said, showing a buckle and the coin. “I never expected before the end of the year we would be finding our own” piece of history.
Finding the artifacts will help support the application to the historical marker program.
“I think it is going a long way to confirm the site” of the settlement, he said.
The historical marker program requires that the person or event have had “a meaningful impact on its times and be of statewide or national, rather than only local, significance,” according to the marker program's website. Thorough documentation is necessary.
Farmer said the application will be submitted in 2015, since the deadline for the 2014 program was Dec. 1.
Haney plans to enter his history project in the individual website category at the National History Day contest at California University of Pennsylvania on Feb. 19. The regional competition will be held on March 1 in the Heinz History Center, and the statewide competition is May 12-13 at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
“The more passionate you are about the subject, the better it looks” in the competition, said history teacher Divelbliss, who has served as a competition judge.
Haney “has the potential to go far” in the competition, Farmer said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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